Theory and Research Breeding Fear and Loathing In the Classroom? They Don’t Need To

I can’t believe it is mid-June! It has been a busy summer. The highlight so far has been 2 weeks in Spain. While the first few days I helped run a booth at an international meeting, the majority of the trip was spent backpacking via train.  I saw Gijon, Bilboa, Seville, Cordoba, Ronda, Toledo, and (for a few hours before catching a flight) Malaga. It was absolutely amazing!

With all that said, a blog post is well overdue!

Puente Nuevo in Ronda Spain

Puente Nuevo in Ronda Spain

One thing I’ve spent a bit of time this summer doing is preparing a new class I am hoping to teach in the spring or the following fall semester. The course is a persuasion course. It aims to enhance exposure to theories and research of influence and persuasion among students in the (still new) Strategic Communication concentration, and our department generally.

As the coordinator of the Strategic Communication concentration, I believe the students would greatly benefit from a focused look at how theories of persuasion and research findings in persuasion can be applied ethically in professional communication settings to improve message effectiveness. Of course, we talk about such concepts here and there in other classes. But, I am excited about having an entire course aimed at getting students to learn these concepts, evaluate their use in real-world examples, and work on a project aimed specifically at applying theoretical concepts to the design of a persuasive campaign (In this assignment, my students will pick a cause they want to advocate for).

I’ve been thinking about this class for the past few semesters. But what truly motivated and solidified my going forward with planning this summer is the very interesting series on the Institute for Public Relations website on behavioral communication. This great series highlights the importance of understanding social scientific research from various fields and its implications for communication professionals.

In his opening post on the series, Christopher Graves states: “When we approach public relations challenges such as changing perceptions, changing people’s minds on an issue, building engagement in climate change or changing behavior related to health, or restoring trust, we tend to gravitate toward intuitive solutions based on creative concepts. Yet we may be working on a false premise from the beginning (“doing the wrong thing righter”). Increasingly, behavioral and neuroscience research related to communications and decision making can better guide us into communications solutions that have a better chance of working.”

While the series focuses primarily on behavioral and brain-related studies, it makes a wider point for the importance of looking to applying research and theoretically-tested assumptions over intuitive assumptions. I always joke with my students that their fear and loathing in the college classroom centers on two words: Theory and Research.

I’ve heard my students express disgust and fear when it comes to theory. I’ve heard discussions among professors that students simply hate theories and research which leads to the question, what should professors do about it? Do we stop teaching theory and focus on more practical things? Do we use a tough love approach and teach students theory, paining both ourselves and our students through dry, intense lectures?

I believe this is a false dilemma. And I believe it stems from not seeing (or showing to our students) the applications of theory and research to practical settings. In a class such as the one I’m designing,emphasis should be given to bridging this gap.

A major goal I have is to help students overcome their aversion to theory and research and to help them see its practical value and importance. We can do so by highlighting examples where theory and research have helped inform effective message design, or by deconstructing an existing message to analyze what theoretical concepts or present or lacking. But we can also do it by taking the time in our classes to demonstrate how a theoretical concept or findings can be applied to a practical situation to better achieve communication goals, thus leading to desired outcomes. In my persuasion class, I plan to have sections of lecture called “Theory into Practice” where, after presenting a theory, I explain how that theory could be applied in a given scenario. I’ll also use mock scenarios students have to work through in class to apply concepts and solve a communication problem – such as through in-class simultaneous response prompts.

Ultimately, it is my goal to have students leaving the class not only more aware of persuasive strategies that can be used, but motivated and adept at using them in their coursework across the concentration (and of course, in their careers once they leave Shepherd). This, in turn, will help them become more cognizant communicators with an empirical mindset towards the choices they make as communication strategists.

It is more important than ever for our students to understand why certain approaches work and others don’t and be able to make informed, research-driven recommendations.

I know this is something we all work towards. I would love your thoughts and suggestions on how you help students see the value in theory and research and bridge the gap between “Oh, this is just stuff I learn in class” to “Oh! This scenario calls for me to apply what I’ve learned to be more effective.”

Cheers!
-Matt

 

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